There is nothing wrong in celebrating Elon Musk, who has achieved much of real value. There are even good messages to be drawn from those achievements. However there are also plenty of wrong conclusions that can and are being drawn about Musk. So it’s worth thinking about what’s wrong and what’s right.
Wrong message #1: We don’t need government involvement in the economy; the private sector can be counted on to get the job done.
Fact: Tesla was started with Obama-era seed money and Obama-era price subsidies for electric car sales. SpaceX got going with NASA contracts. Without government involvement we would have had neither. The major US automakers had to be dragged kicking and screaming to electric cars. The private sector is not good at supporting novel projects without a near-term payoff.
Wrong message #2: We can count on smart people like Musk to tell us what to do.
Fact: High achievers have their limitations and blinders just like everyone else. Musk’s statement that we don’t need “Build Back Better” because he himself never needed help from anyone is actually typical blindness of the class. I worked for a successful startup where the four principals fell out with each other almost immediately after we went public—because each was sure he was the reason for success!
Wrong message #3: In the end we can always count on American ingenuity.
Fact: Musk is one more example of the importance of immigrants and children of immigrants to the American economy. Same for Apple and Google.
Wrong message #4: A few big heroes are what makes for national success.
Fact: Musk was important as a technical visionary. No one else recognized that the technological basis existed for an electric car company. However he also fostered an environment where he could attract the best and brightest to his companies. The achievements of Tesla and Space X have that broader basis.
What’s more, the Person of the Year could equally well have been given to the many scientists and technologists who gave us the Covid vaccines. There are more than a few single heroes in our midst. Big achievements reflect individual contributions of many able people.
I’ll limit the right messages to two:
Right message #1: Technology matters, and things really can change
Both Tesla and SpaceX are fundamentally new businesses, rethought from the bottom up. In a very few years they have changed the US economy.
As contrast, a recent book about the Boeing 737 MAX shows what happens a company loses track of the reality of its business in a blind race for profit.
Right message #2: At all levels individuals can make a difference and should be rewarded accordingly
This is particularly important in technology-driven companies, but not only there. As noted, that was important not just for Musk himself but also within Musk’s companies. For contrast, my contacts at NASA and even JPL have described them as stiflingly bureaucratic. The difference between the SpaceX and the SLS project is undeniable.
Both companies and countries have a tendency to ossify into hierarchical structures that declare themselves to be meritocracies. Equality of opportunity—including opportunity for real success—is necessary both for individuals and for the success of the overall enterprise. For society as a whole, we need both a safety net and true opportunities for individuals to succeed.
As Democrats, our message has to be that we are in business to make life better for everyone—white, black, or anything else. Life for most people in the US is poorer, more stressful, and more uncertain than in any other developed country. That’s a fixable problem, and we’re trying to do it. It’s not easy to fight the powers that be—so it’s not pretty as a process—but we’re up for the fight. Climate fits in that picture as well. Racism has its particular challenges. But we are moving everyone up.
That message is not compatible with the current chest-beating (mostly self-appointed) about how morally superior we are to the moronic white racists. “Those people just have to get used to giving up the advantages they’ve enjoyed by being white, so they ought to suffer.” Not a great way to get elected and not what we stand for. It’s a false premise that we have to trade one group off against another.
That false premise is not just counterproductive as a message, it also leads to bad policy. It is not okay to assume that it’s fine to make the other guy suffer. In education, it is not okay to ignore kids who are successful, because they’re not the ones that count. (I can tell you about mixed classes in middle school math.) With education, as in everything else, we are in it to make things better for everyone. Fighting over insufficiently-provided resources—college slots or AP classes—is not the answer. Watering down education for the supposed benefit of the disadvantaged benefits no one. And both are distractions from the many other items (e.g. family economic stability) that are needed if we really want equality of opportunity. The objective is excellence for all.
We’re still living down “defund the police”—with columnists talking about how it is perfectly okay for mobs to trash the businesses of random people. This education stuff is if anything worse, because it turns racial progress into a threat. That may make some people happy, but it’s not productive, and it isn’t even to the advantage of the people it purports to serve.
As to what we ought to be talking about, it seems that vaccination is a marvelous metaphor for everything the Republican Party stands for. Vaccinated people don’t get sick and die; unvaccinated people do. The people cheering on the unvaccinated are largely vaccinated themselves (e.g. Murdoch and Fox people). They’re sacrificing their supporters to the task of keeping themselves in power. So they can continue to take their money–not just in taxes but in medical expenses, education expenses, and job insecurity.
There are lots of false bogeymen here. “We can’t have those benefits without tanking the economy.” “Just look at the inflation we’re already getting from the Democrats’ spending.” Virtually all the benefits of Trump tax cuts went to the ultra-rich. Virtually all of the corporate benefits went to stock buybacks instead of new investment. Virtually all of the inflation is from shortages created by continuing Covid supply issues. Just as the Obama-era Republicans kept the country poor by blocking all stimulus, the current Republicans are deliberately keeping the country poor by blocking the national recovery from Covid.
One thing that is certainly true is that our strength as a nation, both economic and military, is built on people. That means developing the capabilities of our population, spending on education and research, and getting the best and brightest from everywhere to come here. Furthermore we need to develop the infrastructure (e.g. for climate change, 5G) that the economy will need for the future. The Republican Party has proved it is ready to sacrifice all of that to profits returned to wealthy investors—and deliberately-incited divisiveness.
We need to be a nation united by policies that serve everyone. Our history was written by contributions from all levels of society, including many categories people written off both here and abroad. The divisions we have are more sown than real, so the most important message is that we are in this for all. That’s the only way forward.
Our starting point, however obvious, has to be stated unequivocally: the Constitution of the United States only exists insofar as it is supported by the Supreme Court. That’s just fact. Based on the form and content of the Supreme Court’s Texas decision, the Constitution no longer exists.
We’ve seen the Court stretching things before. The Citizens United decision had nothing to do with the intentions of the founding fathers. The pretext there was weak enough that you wondered if anyone really believed it. Some of Kavanaugh’s recent decisions were worse. However the Texas decision is a sea change. They no longer find it necessary even to come up with pretexts. There was no arguing of the case, and the statement of the majority said little more than that they had the power to do it so they did. Their preferred mode of operation now seems to be “shadow-docket” decisions, where nothing gets said at all.
Despite all that is written about checks and balances in government, sovereignty is indivisible. Someone always has the last word, and in the US system that someone is the Supreme Court. It is the least democratic of institutions and the only one with absolute power. There is no constraint on the scope of it’s decisions or on the rationale to be used in reaching them. And no mechanism to appeal the results.
This is not just about women’s health, serious as that may be. It’s easy to take over the country through the Court, and this Court has shown itself ready for the job. Voting restrictions of any sort will stand unless the Court strikes them down. Increases and decreases in government power are matters of what is or isn’t allowed. If the Court outlaws regulation of business (a current Republican project) then that’s that. Same for healthcare. The free press (already a problem) is what they choose to make of it.
Our current radically-unrepresentative Court (you can’t even call them conservatives) has now served notice that it is ready to act as it sees fit, without constraint of prior decisions or even the need to come up with arguments. That’s the tipping point. Just as with the last election, democracy itself is at stake. Because of the Court’s power, nothing short of reforming it will work.
So we have to enlarge the Court. To do that we need to end the filibuster. The Supreme Court has set down a challenge to democracy, so the time to act is now.
Much of the blame-seeking around Afghanistan is not only off-base, but damaging to our national interest. It’s incredible that even the comparisons with Vietnam talk about the final evacuations, not the failed enterprises. By concentrating all attention on an asserted “manageable” withdrawal, we’ve given the real perpetrators a pass.
In the last couple of days the NY Times has finally published two good articles. One by Ezra Klein has the apt title: “Let’s Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew From Afghanistan Was the Problem”. In it the author goes over the real options we faced and why. It’s a good job. My only concern is that while he is exhaustive about the options, he stops short of all the conclusions I’d like to draw.
For that, the other article is essential. That one was by Sami Sadat, commander of the Afghan Army. His title is “I Commanded Afghan Troops This Year. We Were Betrayed”. His point—that the loss was not just the Afghan army’s fault—is not the main point here. What is important is that he gives a detailed description of the reality faced by the Afghan forces, and that says quite a lot about how much had gone wrong. There are three points to make:
1. The war was lost the moment Trump signed the Taliban agreement.
Here’s the quote from the general:
“The Trump-Taliban agreement shaped the circumstances for the current situation by essentially curtailing offensive combat operations for U.S. and allied troops. The U.S. air-support rules of engagement for Afghan security forces effectively changed overnight, and the Taliban were emboldened. They could sense victory and knew it was just a matter of waiting out the Americans. Before that deal, the Taliban had not won any significant battles against the Afghan Army. After the agreement? We were losing dozens of soldiers a day”.
The last bit is particularly important. Defeat is an exponential process—the likelihood of attrition depends on how bad things look, i.e. on the losses of all kinds beforehand. Once the process starts it accelerates. It was an astonishing mistake of US intelligence to believe we had many months, a year and a half even, before a Taliban takeover. There was no stability once defeat took root. Biden’s late withdrawal of 1200 US troops is not even mentioned by the general, as it was never the issue.
2. There was NO exit plan ever.
Again from the general:
“The Afghan forces were trained by the Americans using the U.S. military model based on highly technical special reconnaissance units, helicopters and airstrikes. We lost our superiority to the Taliban when our air support dried up and our ammunition ran out.
“Contractors maintained our bombers and our attack and transport aircraft throughout the war. By July, most of the 17,000 support contractors had left. A technical issue now meant that aircraft — a Black Hawk helicopter, a C-130 transport, a surveillance drone — would be grounded.
“The contractors also took proprietary software and weapons systems with them. They physically removed our helicopter missile-defense system. Access to the software that we relied on to track our vehicles, weapons and personnel also disappeared. Real-time intelligence on targets went out the window, too”.
The key point is that none of these functions are transferable in weeks or even months to the Afghan army. This is a rebuke of the entire war effort. That this gap existed means that there was no serious attempt to make the Afghan army self-sufficient. As for the contractors, the general’s language makes clear that they had no intention of making their valuable, proprietary expertise available to anyone.
3. The Afghan government had lost the support of the population
On this the general’s comment is specific to the military:
“… there was only so much the Americans could do when it came to the well-documented corruption that rotted our government and military. That really is our national tragedy. So many of our leaders — including in the military — were installed for their personal ties, not for their credentials. These appointments had a devastating impact on the national army because leaders lacked the military experience to be effective or inspire the confidence and trust of the men being asked to risk their lives. Disruptions to food rations and fuel supplies — a result of skimming and corrupt contract allocations — destroyed the morale of my troops.”
More generally, Fareed Zakaria cites a US government poll of Afghans in 2018 that “showed that Afghan support for U.S. troops was at 55%, down from 90% a decade earlier”. That’s saying almost half the population was ready to choose an unknown Taliban regime as better than what they had. With the rampant corruption, participation in the last Afghan election dropped to less than 25%. The Afghan President Ghani reportedly fled through Kabul to the United Arab Emirates with $169 million in cash.
So, with all of that why were we still in Afghanistan? That answer is not complicated.
Getting out was always going to be some variant of the mess we’ve just seen. And there was also a moral argument: leaving was going to hurt a lot of people in Kabul (though fewer elsewhere). So people in government wanted to believe a fantasy—that there was a solution. That is, the Afghan military would defend the state against the Taliban, and everyone would live happily ever after. That fantasy trumped reality all the way down to the end.
What can you say about Biden?
There’s no evidence he could have done much to delay the military defeat. He has gotten more people out thus far than has happened in other comparable situations, but he should have started sooner and that would have reduced some of the chaos. He has not given in to the many proposals for last-minute military actions that would have undoubtedly made things worse. (To be clear, there was no Afghan army, the US couldn’t possibly take on that role itself, and any serious military action would have put all evacuees at risk. Talks of retaining a second military airport are particularly fanciful, as the evacuees weren’t there.) He might have gotten some of the military equipment out earlier, but doing so would have undercut the Afghan army even more. (And the Afghan President Ghani pleaded with him not to do it.)
So you can give him a B. It was certainly embarrassing, but it could have been quite a lot worse.
Even more important, all Biden could do was manage the exit from a failed war. You’d never guess it from all the bluster, but there was no hiding the US defeat. For real responsibility it’s worth quoting a succinct recap of US policy failures from former anti-terrorism officer Ali Soufan:
“Every administration made a lot of mistakes in this. The Bush administration made a lot of mistakes in moving much-needed resources to focus on Iraq and then focusing on Iraq. The Obama administration even sent more troops in and, for eight years, was hoping that something miraculous would happen. The Trump administration is responsible for not understanding the situation at all and opening negotiations only with the Taliban and disregarding the Afghan government and releasing 5,000 Taliban fighters without asking the Taliban for anything in exchange. Unbelievable.”
Of that list it is important to recognize that primary responsibility rests with Bush and the Iraq war. In our eagerness for the neocon-inspired invasion of Iraq, we never even tried to take the opportunity to help create a viable state in Afghanistan. Our current media-fed collective amnesia about both Bush and the Iraq war shows how little we’ve learned from our own recent history.
1. Don’t believe in “benevolent” colonialism.
Neither Afghanistan nor Vietnam was a special American phenomenon. Whatever our original motivations, these were ultimately colonial wars. Once you take over a country, the motivation of the occupier is stability at all cost. That leads to wholesale corruption at the expense of the population and even the war effort. The Afghan general described that situation exactly. You can get a more detailed picture here. Vietnam was the same. The classic on this subject was written in 1860—we should have figured it out by now.
We got into Afghanistan as a follow-on to 9/11. It was up to us to help rebuild the country, schedule elections, and get out.
2. Watch out for fantasies.
Something has to be done about an intelligence establishment that was so eager to please, that it couldn’t recognize that the fantasy had no basis in reality. Remember there was NO exit plan.
3. Watch out for complacency, the idea that the future will just be a continuation of the past.
There is no other obvious reason why Biden was being told that the Afghan army would hold off the Taliban for six months to a year and a half!
4. Finally, going back to Eisenhower, watch out for the military industrial complex.
For that, it’s worth thinking about who won this twenty-year war. Not us, just forced to leave. Not the Afghans who had to live with the fighting and corruption, and now are stuck with the Taliban. The real winners were the contractors.
Over the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. spent $89 billion in taxpayer dollars to fund the building and training of the Afghan National Army with an estimated $2.26 trillion in total operating costs funded by U.S. taxpayers. Ever since the U.S. government began keeping track, contractors have made up more than half of the military personnel working for the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is all the more remarkable since—as we’ve seen—their objectives were not even aligned with our national goals!
The contractors are said not to be worried at all about the end of the Afghan war. There’s a whole new round of military modernization coming. And we’ve never been short of wars.
In the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics many speakers, notably IOC President Thomas Bach, pointed out the importance of the Olympics as a symbol of what can be possible when all countries of the world to come together in peace. That sounds nice, but it’s probably more apt to think about what happened with the original version of the Olympics, which persisted for quite some time. That message is not so rosy.
The original Olympics functioned even more as a symbol of peace, because there was an actual truce during the Olympic period. But the overall lesson of the Olympic experience was that good feelings are not enough. The Olympics did not prevent the horrendously bloody and unnecessary Peloponnesian War, fought between prime participants Athens and Sparta.
Symbols aren’t enough. If we don’t work at peace, it won’t happen. There are more than enough parallels of that past with the current situation between the US and China. If you want peace you need to remove reasons for war.
2. From the fires and floods worldwide:
Messaging about effects of climate change has been more than a little confused. We read about how front-line communities will bear the worst of climate issues (true enough but that makes it someone else’s problem). We see maps of how different countries or regions will be better or worse off. The NYTimes once had an article asking readers to plug in numbers to see if they were rich enough to escape the worst. The most frequent objection to the Paris Accords is that we need to go back and renegotiate a better deal.
Nature is telling us something else. We’re all in this together, and there is nowhere to hide. Scientists have correctly indicated the directions of change. But the world has never been here before, so it’s impossible to predict every bad thing that is going happen and where.
What’s more, carbon dioxide just accumulates in the atmosphere, so climate effects are going to continue getting worse until we can stop burning fossil fuels. There will be more and more unexpected phenomena with more and more damaging results. All the talk of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere is not going to produce results any time soon (and even if it works will itself take monumental amounts of energy). So there’s only one answer—migrating the world’s energy requirements to sustainable sources.
This has to happen worldwide and we have to work together. It may be contrary to all of our normal modes of behavior, but if we don’t all win we’re going to lose.
In the end the two messages are largely the same. We’ve fought two world wars, and now we’ve now got a third one against climate change. We have to learn how to behave when we’re all–unavoidably–on the same side.
With China it’s unsettling enough that for the first time since the end of World War II our worldwide hegemony is under challenge. However that’s just the beginning. As we’ll see, that change is coupled with technological and economic factors that intensify both risks and upsides.
We need first to be clear that the challenge of China is real. We have had other challenges in the past, most notably from the USSR, but none have had the economic might to back them up. This time we’re talking about an economy that by some measures is already larger than ours. Those others look puny in retrospect, although the Russian collapse is dangerously seductive. According to Bob Woodward, the Trump people were convinced that China was just like Russia, and the trade wars would cause a complete collapse in the same way. When Xi said that the US is the barrier to Chinese national success, he was just restating Trump’s declaration that he would destroy the Chinese economy. That of course didn’t happen, and the result was a policy that ultimately produced nothing. Whether we like it or not, we simply don’t have that power. The Chinese are not going away as an economic, technological, and military force.
At the same time it is equally important not to get hysterical about Chinese competition. It’s strange how we periodically become obsessed with the idea that some centrally-organized economic system is going to leapfrog us by running things in a way that we can’t. That happened in the fifties with the USSR (hard to imagine now) and in the eighties with Japan. In reality the US economy succeeded by reinventing itself many times over, in a way that others did not. For China, it is historical fact that state-run enterprises have been corrupt disasters, and the current economic miracle got its impetus from an unintended burst of local free enterprise. Xi’s consolidation of control is no miracle cure. China is a competitor with strengths and weaknesses. As one recent paper put it, China is not ten feet tall.
If we play to our own strengths, the worry is not that we’re going to be outcompeted by the Chinese (or undermined by Chinese stealing our secrets). It’s that we won’t succeed in creating a workable framework for international competition, and we’ll all lose.
We begin with the most basic of risks. We’ve now had many years of Pax Americana, and people forget that history shows that world-power peace is the exception—not the rule.
The reason we’ve had peace is not human progress, international institutions, or even the rise of democracy. It’s the threat of mutually-assured destruction. And however much we may want to believe that all-out war is obsolete, that’s in fact a technology issue.
We can be specific. Much has been written recently about hypersonic missiles, that would fly low at many times the speed of sound and be virtually impossible to detect by radar. That sounds like a whole new arms race, but there’s actually no point to it so long as the balance of terror remains intact. That we’re talking about it at all means we’re not so sure. Reagan’s old “star wars” anti-missile shield was never more than an electoral fantasy, but now there’s plenty of current technology that’s relevant: networks of satellites for detection, AI for decision-making, precision targeting for lasers. China already has a nominally-defensive, satellite-linked system that enables ballistic missiles to be used against moving targets (e.g. US carriers in the South China Sea).
A missile shield would be enormously destabilizing—North Korea could defeat the US in minutes. (It’s interesting that as long as the system was going to be ours, we never thought seriously about what it meant!) Who knows when or if something similar could be real. However the world has been surprised many times by revolutionary changes in the technology of war (Vikings, Mongols, gunpowder, nuclear weapons).
We can’t assume peace; we can’t dictate the world order; we can’t wish away the image of a world trapped in a ruinous and deadly competition for dominance. An encouraging fact is that everyone is much better off not living in such a world. However for now we’ve chosen to divide the world into no-holds-barred competing camps. Avoiding that division requires an act of creation—establishing a workable framework for cooperation and competition. There are many examples of countries that failed such a challenge with disastrous consequences. That’s our challenge here.
The first step to progress is to recognize that just as the risks today are higher than one might think, the potential rewards are also. There’s actually quite a lot to say about the upside, although in the last decades it has been hard to see.
Why is that? To repeat the obvious, the working classes in the West have been hit by two simultaneous body blows: globalization and technology. The result was dramatic, as shown by the following chart:
Globalization has been going on forever, but China’s sudden economic development produced a major hit. For technology the effects have been not only dramatic but accelerating. Thomas Philippon’s recent book has a chart comparing highest valuation companies over the past six decades. For the decade of the 1970’s the five highest valuation companies collectively were responsible for 2.4% of total employment. For the decade of the 2010 the corresponding figure was down to .4%. The bedrock upwardly-mobile manufacturing jobs are going away, as we continue toward a world where highly-skilled product development is the issue, and production is not. That’s true for obvious software enterprises like Facebook, but also for pharmaceuticals, integrated circuits, and many other areas. And it’s getting worse. AI puts a whole new class of jobs at risk, and electric cars (for example) will be much simpler in both manufacturing and maintenance.
Thus far it has been convenient to blame everything on China, with the consequence that both political parties are promising to bring back the good old days once we stare down the evil Chinese. (On the left a 2018 paper by Susan Houseman is cited everywhere to support this position, though it’s actually about weakness in the US manufacturing sector!) That mindset is dangerous on two grounds: it’s a kind of scapegoating that gets in the way of rational action, and it obscures other serious problems that need to be addressed. To get past that we need to discuss national prosperity and population welfare as separate issues.
For prosperity the key point is that China has actually turned a corner in its effect on the rest of the world. Although in aggregate terms China remains a very poor country (number 108 in per capita income, far below Mexico for example), the country is so large that its new middle class now buys enough to be a positive driver for the rest of the world economy. Even with the current market access restrictions, China is the largest national market for Mercedes-Benz and a major market for film industries from everywhere. The balance of payments deficit was reduced by half under Obama. For the EU, more export-oriented than we are, the effect is even more pronounced. (Intellectual property theft was also down under Obama.)
What this means is that, as opposed to the situation in the past, China has the potential for transforming itself from a drain on the world economy—producing more than it consumes—to the opposite. Raising the living standards for a billion people is an enterprise with potentially many benefits for everyone concerned. Nothing says that’s going to happen, but the difference is real. The current situation is no longer dictated by the poverty of China, it is instead an expression of the relationship with China as it stands. How do we make things better? Well, if we want China to play by the rules, we need better rules. As for motivation, growth in the West means growth for them (and, whether we like it or not, success for the ruling party).
The precondition for progress is establishing appropriate conditions for trade, that is to say a notion of fair trade which is comprehensive and up-to-date. The comprehensive part means we need to cover many items that are not currently included, including labor conditions, environmental issues, international standards for taxation. There is the potential for trade policy to become a vehicle for raising living standards worldwide. Stated simply, we’ve had globalization for the rich; we need globalization for everyone else.
There are of course no guarantees. Some elements, such as environmental issues, may be clear areas of common interest. Labor conditions will be more difficult. Details of market access will need to be worked out. It’s important to have everything on the table. It is particularly important that these are not rules imposed by us on others but norms of behavior for everyone in a common enterprise.
That difference is important in any kind of negotiation, but it is of particular importance for China. We don’t talk much about it, but China experienced some of the worst of Western imperialism extending well into the 20th century. That shared history makes Xi’s nationalism easy. If we want to get what we want, the last thing we should be doing is pretending it’s still true.
What Trade Rules Won’t Fix
Just as China wasn’t responsible for all problems, fixing China (even in the best case) won’t fix everything. Two points in particular should be emphasized. First, the kind of national prosperity we’ve been discussing thus far says little about personal welfare. People are still going to lose jobs both from ever-accelerating technology changes as well as remaining international competition—regardless of fairness. We’ll still be stuck with the prevailing inequality in society. We’ll still have all of the dislocations that will result from the economic transformations with climate change. Those are our domestic problems to solve.
Blaming China has made it possible to ignore that reality. Until recently in fact the prevailing ideology was that there is no additional problem of population welfare—the private sector would do it all. So for loss of good jobs the only issue was globalization, and the only means to address it were tariffs and tax cuts. Four years of a deficit-funded bubble with huge tax cuts to business did almost nothing for real wages or upward mobility.
Currently there are outlines of a solution. Particularly with the transitions required by climate change, there is no shortage of work. With the increases in corporate profit margins and high-end incomes there is no shortage of money—but workable taxation is a big issue. The public sector needs to put all that together: to see that the necessary work gets done and the population is supported with a national infrastructure that includes education at all levels, healthcare, so forth. It’s a work in progress.
The second point to make is that we have tacitly assumed we will maintain our national competitiveness. While we can see what has been successful in the past, there is no guarantee it will continue in the future. That isn’t theory. We just spent four years fighting science, demonizing foreigners, and favoring existing companies over new entrants. All of that hurts. It’s our job to play to our strengths.
Parallels with Climate Change
With that we return to the first issue—national prosperity. For that we want to stress parallels with what’s happening for climate change.
With climate change we’re also presented with a very strong common interest, but a non-trivial task in breaking that down according to individual national interests. As a country we haven’t thought much about that, since the national dialog has been primarily about getting our own act together, with the assumption that all the others just have to do their jobs too. However the reality of the situation is that we in the US have twice the per capita CO2 production of any other major emitter in the world,
and we in the West are almost 100% responsible for the level of CO2 currently in the atmosphere. The vast portion of humanity is going to have to sacrifice for our benefit, and it’s non-trivial to define acceptable justice.
Nonetheless the Paris agreement shows that with good will it’s possible to make progress. It will require continuing work, with more commitment from the developed world, and also with a mechanism for follow-through on commitments (in the absence of any such system today). But thus far the strength of common interest seems motivation enough to keep it going. It’s worth noting that the Montreal Protocol to ban CFC’s (and preserve the Ozone Layer)—one of the most successful efforts at international cooperation ever—also proceeded as a series of successively more demanding steps:
So it’s no surprise—and no cause for panic—that the current Paris goals don’t yet get as far as we need to go.
The parallel with China is precise. To keep the world economy sane and growing, everyone needs a stake in the game. In practice it needs to be negotiated between the West and China with at least some account taken of the interests of the rest of the world. But the issue is less a resolution of differing national interests than a recognition of the magnitude of common interest. One can even argue that the climate discussions are a necessary prelude to the broader economic discussions that need to take place.
The WTO seems the appropriate vehicle for negotiations, although its capabilities need to be extended to deal with the broader definition of fair trade. Before Trump’s election all parties expected such discussions would begin—including of China’s continuing special status as a developing country. Instead we got a repudiation of all international rules, in favor of an imagined omnipotent USA. We’re now going back to the game with the doubled leverage of allies beside us, but with an adversary who views us (particularly after January 6) as weaker and less reliable. What’s more we’ve spent four years strengthening the militant anti-western side of the Chinese Communist Party. Certainly there’s a job to do.
It may seem strange to put such emphasis on the WTO since “Bill Clinton let China in the WTO and there was nothing we could do about the Chinese assault on American jobs.” That truism is actually an example (among others) of what you might call bipartisan revisionist history (the left and right united against the center). In fact the main issue raised with China’s behavior has always been currency manipulation, which was in no way permitted under WTO rules. And as the job loss chart (from earlier) makes clear, the loss of American jobs was a phenomenon of the George W. Bush presidency—when we were too busy with the Iraq war and the financial crisis to press our case about anything else. The WTO is what we make of it; the vast majority of US WTO cases have in fact succeeded. For now it’s the best game in town.
Issues for Today
As a last topic, we want to be clear that we are in no way minimizing the seriousness of the immediate issues that divide the US and China. One short list makes that clear:
– Hong Kong
– Islands in the South China Sea
– Regime-incited nationalism
The first point deserves special comment, because it shows how high the stakes can be. On one side it is a matter of Chinese national pride, instilled by state propaganda for every school child. On the other it is not only a matter of US national commitment, it’s also critically strategic. As one example, Taiwan is the home of TSMC—the worldwide leader in IC manufacturing technology. Every new iPhone has an TSMC processor. (This example also shows we can’t solve global supply chain issues by just assuming we’ll bring it all home!)
Other articles have talked about scenarios for de-escalating this complicated situation. We’re not going to go through those here, but it is nonetheless worth saying a few words about how each of the issues fits with the strategies we’ve just discussed.
The Uighurs and Hong Kong are issues that the Chinese view as internal matters. Outside of China we can attempt to exert pressure by economic threats, but we’re in no position to change that point of view. Four years’ worth of dictates have instead made it worse–a matter of sovereignty versus capitulation. Ideally by bringing China into a broader realm of international standards for behavior, we can attempt to make both—and particularly the Uighurs—a different class of issue: what it means to belong to the international order. Hong Kong is the harder issue, because the threat to the national control is bigger. However it’s easier to think about compromise once the sovereignty isn’t the main story.
The South China Sea is a national security question. More than two-thirds of Chinese trade comes via the South China Sea. China, like us, wants complete control of its immediate strategic environment. We after all have the Monroe Doctrine. Thus far we’ve taken the worst possible approach, asserting US control of the seas for any purpose we choose. That’s going to be hard to walk back, but the only way to do it is by making freedom of the seas a matter outside of national whim, perhaps linked to some kind of regional agreement. It won’t be easy, but we can at least dial down some of the immediate pressure.
Regime-incited nationalism is the usual face of fascism. We heighten it by continuing to act as an imperialist power—asserting that it is our decision whether to continue to allow Chinese economic development. We have limited ability to change the issue, as it is a tool the regime uses to maintain its power. However, the more contacts there are and the less rabid our own vocabulary, the better the chance to cool it. It’s worth noting that in the Nazi era, most Germans justified Nazi aggression by a belief that Germany had been purposely shoved aside.
Finally we return to Taiwan. The only thing you can say is that it’s clear how much the issue means for both sides. If cooperation is necessary for continued prosperity, then both sides need to find a way to save face. That’s what we were doing for decades. Trump and Pompeo were part of the change, but it was probably happening on Chinese side anyway. The only way out is to strengthen the motivation for sanity. For that, common interest (with a united West) is always better than military threats. Even today, the impediment to invasion is more economic than military. International institutions strengthen both the carrot and the stick—you’re giving up more and making retaliation more comprehensive and certain.
All that being said, we end by again emphasizing the parallel with climate change. Climate change is a pending catastrophe that is forcing the world to come together in a more closely-coordinated way than ever before. As with climate change, the China-US relationship constitutes a critical issue that can only be resolved by strengthening international frameworks for both cooperation and competition. The world can be a better place, or we’ll all face the consequences.
It may be the day after Thanksgiving, but it’s worth thinking more about reasons to be thankful.
Hopefully we can make it through the next few weeks until the Electoral College meets and Biden takes office. If that happens there are good reasons to be optimistic.
– The coronavirus siege will end. It looks like the vaccines will work and can be manufactured. We have all kinds of logistical problems to solve, but we will get out of this and move on (having killed off far too many in the interim). You can contrast that with the despair when Obama took office, and it wasn’t clear when or if we were ever going to get out.
– As a result, economies will start doing better. This will happen sooner if Republican don’t try to sabotage it and make recovery unnecessarily painful (as they did last time), but it should happen eventually in any case. That can give us a second chance at what ought to have happened under Trump. Trump’s economic policy of a deficit-funded bubble in good times (an unprecedented act of self-serving immorality) wasted the chance to rebuild national infrastructures. We should have a chance at prosperity and wise use of its opportunities. That would be good for everyone.
– The virus should provide ample incentive for progress on the many festering issues of international governance. Regardless of what anyone says, the virus showed how bad it can get when there is no effective means of dealing with a critical world-wide problem. Climate change is the prime example, but there are many other issues with globalization that need work. A Biden administration has a chance of dealing with international standards for trade, labor, environmental protection, etc. There is tremendous upside to this—defusing the climate crisis, worldwide economic growth, diminished domestic unrest, reduced threat of war.
None of this is guaranteed, but we have a chance. By the skin of our teeth we have managed to beat back fascism in this country. That’s no small achievement, and if we’re diligent and lucky there can be dividends.
There is quite some consternation about how 73 million people could actually have voted for Trump. What does that say about the electorate? Has half the country gone mad?
There have been many answers to that question, but I’m going to propose something simple. We just need to recognize that without Covid19 we would have had no chance of defeating Trump. The strength of the economy would have reelected him. In fact that almost did happen, and it’s why the polls were wrong.
Trump almost had his November surprise. In the debates we were able to lead with Covid19, because we could point out how Trump’s botched non-leadership compared with other countries. That argument collapsed at the last minute, when Europe entered a new Covid crisis not yet shared by the US. Normally international developments don’t affect domestic opinion much, but this effectively exonerated Trump. Our election day fit neatly into that short period where Europe was reeling with a second Covid wave, but the US looked better.
With that, the economy returned as primary issue. Biden was going to turn things upside down—as an overreaction to Covid and to deal with nonsense such as climate change. It wasn’t just a matter of socialism-mongering. We had invested so much in Covid as evidence of Trump’s dangers, that people had to think themselves about the rest. Trump, shockingly, had his reelection turned into the safe choice!
What does that say about Trump voters? There were of course whole blocs of true-believers such as the Evangelicals, but the rest of the group was familiar: they’re the same ones who would have elected Trump without Covid. With Covid off the table, the Trump time had been okay, and the rest was electoral noise.
That’s the level at which the election was fought. We shouldn’t delude ourselves that the electorate was as excited about all our issues as we are. Maybe I’m pushing things, but I’m going to draw a parallel with the last British election. In that election the primary issue for the voters was Brexit, but the Labor leader Corbin was only interested in promoting his classically socialist programs. Those programs were actually popular, but they were irrelevant for that election, and the population judged Labor irrelevant too. We’ve won the election on Trump and Covid, but we shouldn’t think we’ve finished the job of making our other issues relevant.
If we can’t make progress on the Covid recovery, healthcare, and climate, we will be judged irrelevant. Internal fighting only hurts. I’d even say that so much needs doing for climate and the Covid recovery that the remaining divisions are less important.
We may of course be in a real battle to be able to govern at all. There’s a fair chance that after January 20th Trump will still be talking about a stolen election, and—if we can’t pull off a Senate win in Georgia—Mitch McConnell could be back with the same scorched-earth used with Obama.
The Republicans got off scott-free for six years spent deliberately prolonging the 2008 recession. After the abject hypocrisy of the “balanced budget amendment” followed by Trump’s deficit-funded tax cuts, we can’t let that happen again.
That’s a worthy battle. But as with the election itself, we’ll need everyone or we’ll all lose.